While students were home enjoying spring break, the NCAA Division III No. 6 ranked UC Santa Cruz men’s volleyball team was out on the court, giving it their all. The Slugs played two crucial games against No. 4 Carthage as part of their quest to reach the NCAA tournament alive for the third straight year.
UCSC went 3-1 in their home tournament, the Slug Slam, before facing off in a doubleheader versus Carthage. The Slugs broke even against Carthage, winning one of their two games. The team has now won half of their games this season, boasting an 11-11 record.
“It is very difficult to stay focused after just finishing finals and during spring break, but this team had goals from the beginning of the year,” said senior captain Jake Landel. “We won’t let any distractions outside of volleyball get in our way from reaching them.”
Earlier in the season the Slugs hit a bump in the road, losing five games in a row. But they were able to come back strong, and win four of their next six games. Having lost six seniors this year, the team’s leadership and chemistry were compromised. The team has a roster that includes eight freshman, so there was a bit of a learning curve with such a young squad. Yet they’ve grown a lot as the season progressed, and it has shown through their improved play.
“We found an identity that was not there at the beginning of our season,” sophomore Jorge Reyes said. “We set our differences apart and trained to obtain what we all want at the end of the year — a good season — but most importantly to improve from beginning to end.”
The Slugs will end their season on the road April 4-5 in Cambridge, Mass. for the MIT tournament. They will play four crucial games over that weekend, which the Slugs must win in order to have a slight chance of making the NCAA tournament.
“The MIT tournament is huge for us, not just for the NCAA tournament, but also to end our season on a high note,” said head coach Todd Hollenbeck. “If we go 4-0, it gives us the chance of making the tournament, but no matter what happens, if we make it or not, it prepares us for next year’s season.”
At the MIT tournament, the Slugs will face off against MIT for the second time this season. Last time the Slugs lost, and they’ll be looking for revenge against a gritty and well-prepared MIT team. As if the Slugs needed more of an incentive to get the W, it will also be their last game of the regular season.
“We played MIT at the beginning of the year so we don’t know how much they changed as a team, but we have to get in the film room to key out their strengths and weaknesses,” said senior captain Jake Landel. “I believe if we bring our game, then no team in Boston should be able to hold their own against us.”
With a chance at the postseason, the team has the personnel and the confidence to make a big run deep into the tournament. Earlier this season they defeated the then second highest ranked team in the nation, Nazareth College, in three sets — the same team who took them out last season in the NCAA tournament. This win alone proves the Slugs are capable of competing against any team.
“The mentality is important for us because we are so young — the freshmen don’t have the experience of playing in a NCAA tournament,” Hollenbeck said. “If we make the NCAA tournament, the team will go through two intense weeks of hard training in order to hit a high mark and play our best ball.”
UCSC is the only university in California with a Division III men’s volleyball team, and so the players are constantly on the road facing Division III opponents who will give them an opportunity to qualify for postseason. It’s difficult for them, as the long road trips can be both physically and mentally exhausting, especially going into the final stretch of a long season.
“It’s tough,” said head coach Todd Hollenbeck. “Everyone is a little bit drained right now, but we have to bring some new energy.”
Drained or not, the team will continue to play with a no-breaks mentality. They can’t afford to lose another game and will be fighting to stay alive with every serve, set and spike.